At 61, the Chinese dissident and Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo had spent a quarter of his life in custody in China for his non-violent resistance to the Chinese state and what he called it’s “forceful tyranny.” He was serving an 11-year sentence imposed for his involvement in the Charter 08 manifesto which had called for the end of one-party rule in China. Only last month he was transferred from prison to a hospital, but remained in custody, after being diagnosed as being in the late stages of liver cancer. According to The Guardian he was treated in the hospital in an isolated ward with armed guards. Despite pleas from world leaders and governments the Chinese government would not release him or leave the country. His supporters, backed by politicians such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, suggested he could prolong his life if he was allowed to access treatment abroad, but their pleas fell on death ears in Beijing. Tom Phillips, writing in The Guardian, suggested that the Chinese government were “wilfully and intentionally shortening the dissident’s life in order to deny him one last opportunity to denounce their rule.”
A friend of Liu Xiaobo, the author and activist Tiench Martin-Liao, was distraught on hearing the news of Xiaobo’s death:
“It is so hard. I don’t know if I can say anything.
“I hate this government […] I am furious and lots of people share my feeling. It is not only sadness – it is fury. How can a regime treat a person like Liu Xiaobo like this? I don’t have the words to describe it.
“This is unbearable. This will go down in history. No-one should forgot what this government and the Xi Jinping administration has done. It is unforgivable. It is really unforgivable.”
Another friend of Xiaobo, the editor of the pro-democracy journal the Beijing Spring Hu Ping, said:
“Liu Xiaobo is immortal, no matter whether he is alive or dead.
“Liu Xiaobo is a man of greatness, a saint.”
The head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee – who awarded Liu Xiaobo his Nobel peace prize – said the Chinese government “bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death” and added: “We find it deeply disturbing that Liu Xiaobo was not transferred to a facility where he could receive adequate medical treatment before he became terminally ill.” Meanwhile, Eva Pils – an expert in Chinese law and human rights from King’s College London compared Mr Xiaobo’s death in custody with that of German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize. Ossietzky died in a Nazi concentration camp and was the last Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody. Mr Pils said that Xiaobo’s death was “a grim ending.”
Hu Ping said that the situation in China for dissidents is deteriorating under the rule of President Xi Jinping, perhaps not seen as this severe since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He said: “I think the situation in China now is deteriorating – and the way in which Liu has been treated clearly shows us what the current situation is, and how it goes beyond our imagination.”
Liu Xiaobo was living in New York at the time of the pro-democracy protests in the spring of 1989 that would lead to the Tiananmen Square massacre and decided to return to China. The Chinese literature expert, Perry Link of the University of California, suggested that Xiaobo had shown little interest in politics before then but the surge of protests that year gave him the idea that he could make a difference or a contribution. On returning to Beijing he headed for Tiananmen Square, where the protests were focused, and led a hunger strike in the days leading up to the 4 June military crackdown and massacre. He was arrested and convicted of “counter-revolutionary” acts and was sentenced to two years in prison. The experience converted him to what would be a lifelong pursuit of democracy in China.
More time in prison would follow in the years to come, but Xiaobo continued relentlessly his protests and agitation. Perry Link suggested that Xiaobo was aware of the dangers of his activism, but that he was committed to peaceful protest – in the style of Mahatma Ghandi in India – and that he had “no fear of what might befall him.” Xiaobo expressed his activism through speaking out in essays and interviews. Perry Link said that he was a serious intellectual and would discuss a vast range of topics with him, from the Olympics to St Augstine and Emmanuel Kant.
Xiaobo’s latest – and final – stint in prison began with his involvement in the Charter 08 manifesto in 2008. It was itself inspired by the Charter 77, published in 1977 by dissidents in Czechoslovakia. Charter 08 was a rag to a bull as far as the Chinese government where concerned. It’s call for democracy and change was too much for the Chinese Communist Party. The Charter said: “The current system has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided.” This obviously was not something the Chinese government were prepared to contemplate or encourage. The Charter was the first public document in 60 years to even mention the end of one-party rule and the Chinese authorities perceived it as a direct threat to their power which had to be quelled. They arrested the document’s drafters hours before it was due to be published – Xiaobo among them. The following year Xiaobo was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power.” Perry Link suggests that although Xiaobo and the Charter 08 have influenced world opinion, in China a lot of young people still don’t know anything about him or the Charter. This, he says, has demonstrated that the Chinese state’s crackdown on dissidents is having an effect.
In 2010 Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” As he was in prison he could not accept the award in person, and it was accepted by his wife Liu Xia, the poet and artist. She paid a price for accepting the award on her husband’s behalf. The Chinese state placed her under house arrest and she spent years under constant surveillance and living in near isolation. The French academic and friend of Liu Xia, Jean-Philippe Béja, described her as a “wonderful woman,” adding that after the death of her husband: “I don’t even dare to imagine how she feels now.”
Friends of Xiaobo were expecting him to be released in 2019 before the catastrophic news of his cancer emerged just a few weeks ago. Perry Link said that he will be remembered as a “stubborn truth-teller” who believed in the “possibility of a different kind of China.” He added “That is a lasting legacy. The model of how an independent intellectual stands up to the state will be admired if it is not completely obliterated.”
The American lawyer Jared Genser – who had been campaigning for his release – said that Xiaobo had not died in vain:
“Liu’s ideas and his dreams will persist, spread, and will, one day, come to fruition.
“His courage and his sacrifice for his country will inspire millions of Chinese activists and dissidents to persevere until China has become the multiparty democracy that Liu knew to his core was within its people’s grasp.”
Above: Liu Xiaobo and his wife, the poet Liu Xia.
In 2012, from his prison cell, Liu Xiaobo wrote a heartfelt poem dedicated to his wife Liu Xia. In was published by Harvard University Press in the book No Enemies, No Hatred – Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo.
I’ll never give up the struggle for freedom from the oppressors’
jail, but I’ll be your willing prisoner for life.
I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love
I want to live in your dark insides
surviving on the dregs in your blood
inspired by the flow of your estrogen
I hear your constant heartbeat
drop by drop, like melted snow from a mountain stream
if I were a stubborn, million-year rock
you’d bore right through me
drop by drop
day and night
I grope in the dark
and use the wine you’ve drunk
to write poems looking for you
I plead like a deaf man begging for sound
Let the dance of love intoxicate your body
I always feel
your lungs rise and fall when you smoke
in an amazing rhythm
you exhale my toxins
I inhale fresh air to nourish my soul
I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love
like a baby loath to be born
clinging to your warm uterus
you provide all my oxygen
all my serenity
A baby prisoner
in the depths of your being
unafraid of alcohol and nicotine
the poisons of your loneliness
I need your poisons
need them too much
Maybe as your prisoner
I’ll never see the light of day
but I believe
darkness is my destiny
all is well
The glitter of the outside world
I focus on
your darkness –
simple and impenetrable
The death of Liu Xiaobo has brought tributes from around the world. Here are some:
Jared Genser, Xiaobo’s international counsel: “Despite the tragedy that Liu’s freedom has come from his death, it is clear today that the Chinese government has lost. Liu’s ideas and his dreams will persist, spread, and will, one day, come to fruition. And his courage and his sacrifice for his country will inspire millions of Chinese activists and dissidents to persevere until China has become the multi-party democracy that Liu knew to his core was within its people’s grasp.”
Joshua Wong, Hong Kong-based activist and democracy campaigner: “We will strive to carry forward his legacy to fight for democracy in HK and China.”
Heiko Maas, German Justice Minister: “His non-violent resistance made him a hero in the battle for democracy and human rights. RIP.”
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International:
“Liu Xiaobo was a man of fierce intellect, principle, wit and above all humanity.
“For decades, he fought tirelessly to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms in China. He did so in the face of the most relentless and often brutal opposition from the Chinese government. Time and again they tried to silence him, and time and again they failed. Despite enduring years of persecution, suppression and imprisonment, Liu Xiaobo continued to fight for his convictions.
“Although he has passed, everything he stood for still endures. The greatest tribute we can now pay him is to continue the struggle for human rights in China and recognize the powerful legacy he leaves behind. Thanks to Liu Xiaobo, millions of people in China and across the world have been inspired to stand up for freedom and justice in the face of oppression.”
Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch:
“The Chinese government’s arrogance, cruelty, and callousness are shocking – but Liu’s struggle for a rights-respecting, democratic China will live on.
“No government should let the death of Liu Xiaobo pass without challenging Beijing’s mistreatment of this critical voice for human rights, calling for Liu Xia’s freedom, and pressing for the release of all those wrongfully detained across China.
“Governments should send a clear message to Beijing that the principles to which Liu Xiaobo devoted his life will thrive after his tragic death.”
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, criticised Western governments over its handling of the Xiaobo case:
“It is a sad and disturbing fact that the representatives of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, are less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others.
“Liu Xiaobo was a representative of ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world, even in China. These ideas cannot be imprisoned and will never die.”
Activist Chen Guangcheng: “By torturing and killing Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Communist authorities have blocked all possibilities of progress.” Chen is the author of The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.
Teng Biao, Chinese human rights lawyer and academic: “[Liu Xiaobo] has died. His love, courage and strength will never die.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:
“[Human Rights movement] in China and across the world has lost a principled champion who devoted his life to defending and promoting human rights, peacefully and consistently, and who was jailed for standing up for his beliefs.
“Liu Xiaobo was the true embodiment of the democratic, non-violent ideals he so ardently advocated.
“Despite the imprisonment and separation from the wife he adored that could have [fueled] anger and bitterness, Liu Xiaobo declared that he had no hatred for those who pursued and prosecuted him.”
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Xiaobo “dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty.”
Sources & Further Reading:
- Liu Xiaobo, Nobel laureate and political prisoner, dies at 61 in Chinese custody – The Guardian – Thursday 13 May 2017 – by Tom Phillips in Beijing. Additional reporting by Wang Zhen.
- ‘The Chinese Government Has Lost’ – Tributes for Liu Xiaobo – The News Lens (International Edition) – Thursday 13 July 2017.
- Liu Xiaobo dying: China media silent amid social media tributes – Influence with Aquinas – Thursday 13 July 2017
- Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate imprisoned in China, dies at 61 – The Washington Post – Thursday 13 July 2017 – by Harrison Smith
- Liu Xiaobo dead: Jailed Chinese opposition activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner dies aged 61 – The Independent – Thursday 13 July 2017 – by Maya Oppenheim
- Liu Xiaobo: The man China couldn’t erase – bbcnews.co.uk – Thursday 13 July 2017 – by Carrie Gracie, China Editor
- Devotion amid despair: the great contemporary love story of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo – The Guardian – Wednesday 12 July 2017 – by Tom Phillips in Beijing and Tania Branigan.
- ‘Your Lifelong Prisoner’ – Liu Xiaobo’s poem from prison – The Guardian – Monday 26 June 2017 – by Liu Xiaobo.